EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — In the mass of tailgaters gathered outside Autzen Stadium before a recent Oregon game, two young men sported T-shirts with the bold words: "Stop Chip."
A nod to coach Chip Kelly, the slogan was a clever play on shirts that were donned all over Eugene some four decades ago that proclaimed "Stop Pre" in honor of the seemingly unstoppable Steve Prefontaine.
The spirit of Pre still resonates in Eugene and has become inspiration for the No. 1 Ducks. It is a connection that crosses both time and athletic disciplines.
Prefontaine was a brash runner who trained in the early 1970s under Oregon's renowned coach Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike.
At one point, Prefontaine held seven American records in distances ranging from 2,000 meters to the 10K. He was known for running every race full-bore, rejecting any suggestion that he pace himself.
But along with his undeniable talent, Pre attracted attention with James Dean good looks and a devil-may-care attitude. And, much like Dean, Pre died in a car accident at the height of his career. He was 24.
"To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift," Prefontaine once said, exemplary of his hard-charging style.
Pre's message struck a nerve with coach Kelly, who last season took the Ducks to Pre's Rock, as it is known, a memorial near the accident site.
"Steve Prefontaine did not care who he was running against. He was going to run as hard as he could for as long as he could," Kelly said. "That's what I hope our attitude is in this football program."
Oregon is certainly embracing Pre's philosophy as they plow full-bore through the season. The Ducks are 9-0 overall and 6-0 in the Pac-10, sitting atop both the BCS and the AP rankings.
Oregon leads the nation in total offense, averaging just over 567 yards each game. They are also scoring a national-best 54.67 points per game.
One of the players who has taken Pre's example to heart is running back LaMichael James, who related to the notion of pushing boundaries.
"He never gave up," James said about Prefontaine. "He always gave 110 percent."
This season, James is averaging 166.4 yards over eight games, the best average in the country. He's scoring an average of 13.5 points a game, also a national best.
As a result, he's also grabbing considerable attention from Heisman Trophy pundits, who are putting him at the top of the potential candidates list with Auburn's Cam Newton and Boise State's Kellen Moore.
James recently said that his only individual goal is becoming an Academic All-American. Otherwise, he just wants to help his team with a national title.
"The most important thing to me is my teammates and going out and playing hard, each and every down, for them, not just for some trophy. I'll worry about that stuff after the season," he said.
The Ducks on Saturday visit California (5-4, 3-3 Pac-10) in Berkeley, where they hasn't won in Strawberry Canyon since 2001. After that, Oregon hosts Arizona before concluding the regular season at rival Oregon State.
Kelly has invoked Prefontaine's spirit in numerous speeches to the team, including the season-opener against New Mexico. The team's visit to Pre's rock came before last year's 37-33 victory over the Beavers in the Civil War, which clinched the Ducks the Pac-10 championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl.
"The big thing for him was that he didn't care who he raced against. It was about how he performed," Kelly said. "That's what we talk to our team about all the time."
Prefontaine himself once said:
"A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.